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September 17, 2013, by Editor

Ballot Paper as the Weapon of the Weak: Resistance of Immigrant Women in the Private Home in Taiwan

Written by Isabelle Cheng.

Since the late 1980s, Taiwan has been adopted as home by women from China and five Southeast Asian countries: Vietnam, Indonesia, Cambodia, the Philippines, and Thailand. From 1982 to 2011, a total of 282,847 Chinese and 129,547 Southeast Asian immigrant women resided in the island (NIA 2011). Amongst them, a total of 91,683 Chinese women and 96,316 foreign women (including a marginal number of non-Southeast Asian nationalities) acquired citizenship on the status of being ROC citizens’ spouses (NIA 2011, MoI 2013). These new citizens occupy slightly more than 1 per cent of the total eligible voters as of the 2012 presidential election (CEC 2013). Considering the factional margin of foreign men and women whose citizenship is awarded by means other than marriage with ROC citizens (3.06 per cent, MoI 2012), marriage immigrant women from China and Southeast Asia has become the dominant majority of foreign-born citizens in Taiwan.

Citizenship symbolises the inclusion of an immigrant outsider into the political polity of the adopted country. The ballot paper signifies an immigrant’s rite of passage from being an alien to that of an equal member of the polity. With the right to vote, immigrant-turned citizens join the citizens of the host state to take part in the decision-making processes of public affairs. Not only are they entitled to raise demands specific to their interests but also express their concerns about issues that affect the well-being of the general public. The above is a familiar characterisation of citizenship as a membership of a state, a legal status on which claims can be made, a practise of the state for integration, and a source of empowerment (Isin 2009: 369-370).

However, what is missing from this characterisation is how the right to vote as a bounded and lofty concept are understood and enacted upon by its beholder. Can this abstract notion be actually experienced in the daily life by citizens and those who are poised to become citizens, and thus have a real impact on its beholder’s interaction with others? Given that the family is the centre of immigrant women’s everyday life, it is not surprising that a major source of their political socialisation is their husbands and in-laws. Would exercising voting rights become part of their daily interaction? Are immigrant women passively influenced by their husbands’ political inclination as the stereotype portrays?

My fieldwork of interviewing 98 immigrant women from China, Vietnam, Indonesia, and the Philippines in 2009-10 suggests a far more complicated picture of how voting rights have impact on their daily life. The following four cases, each of which is accentuated by the degree of openness of their disagreements, illustrate that they do not lack autonomy in voting decision. However, their hard-earned independence has to be understood in the power relation in the private home as well as in the public realm where immigrants are surrounded by partisan politics and the discriminatory social environment.

Guangxi-born Zhu Yongli grew up in a rural village with only a year’s education. She perceived politics as a power struggle amongst elites for high offices. She showed no interest in voting because ‘ordinary folks like [her] had nothing to do with’ realpolitik and could not have any real influence over the political system. Before Yongli acquired citizenship, her mother-in-law was mindful about her ineligibility to vote and felt it regrettable that she could not instruct Yongli’s voting decision. Little did she know that Yongli, after living with her stingy mother-in-law and indifferent husband for nine years, had been determined that she would abstain. The following quote illuminated how she perceived her mother-in-law’s intention:

‘Of course they, Taiwanese, would hope to gain one more vote [of mine]. If I helped these Taiwanese, surely we Chinese would be upset. If I didn’t help them (Taiwanese), my husband and mother-in-law would be unhappy. (Q: But nobody can see what you’re doing in the voting booth.) I’d rather do nothing and upset no one. I’ve thought through [about my relationship with my husband and in-laws]; I think honesty is the best solution’.

Yongli’s narration is a revelation of the perceived reciprocal animosity between local Taiwanese and Chinese immigrants. She envisaged the electoral politics as a public showdown between the two, and both of them demanded her allegiance, which galvanised her anxieties of feeling caught in between. The demand for loyalty of local Taiwanese was personified by her mother-in-law in the private family realm. The solution to set herself free from this public as well as private pressure was to abstain. Her abstention is thus a micro-political form of resistance in defiance against her in-law and the overarching confrontation between the locals and the Chinese immigrants.

High-school graduate Nguyễn Hong Phuc from Vietnam also abstained from voting. Unlike Yongli, she actively saw electoral politics as a site for improving immigrants’ well-being. Her conception germinated from her encounters with some policemen during the process of her citizenship application. The sense of being looked down upon by the police empowered her to aspire to the idea that there should be ‘someone to speak up for us’. Nevertheless, the aspiration of using her ballot to bring about such an advocate was eclipsed by her relationship with her father-in-law. Her father-in-law asked which party she would vote for. Although their relationship was amicable, his query was translated into an expectation of her conformity to his preference. Her preference was different from his; however, in order to maintain her independent preference and to be free from any sense of betrayal towards him, she decided to abstain. Her abstention is another case of how the electoral politics crept into an immigrant’s private life and how the concern of maintaining the familial relationship was given priority to utilising the political right for advancing self-interest. Her resistance is made at the expense of her interest in an exchange of personal independence.

Abstention is not the only option with which to resist uninvited pressure and maintain autonomy. Lưu Mai Lan is a Vietnamese Chinese from Ho Chi Minh City. Her family finances were tightly supervised by her brother-in-law, who was not pleased that Mai Lan encouraged her husband to assert their financial independence. As the patriarch of the family, her brother-in-law regarded Mai Lan’s voting rights as a token of his primacy – he was entitled to the power of dictating which candidate she should vote for.
Mai Lan understood that democracy was a system in which the electorate vote for candidates who campaign for sectarian interests, including those of immigrants. However, she doubted whether such candidates could achieve to improve her own well-being. Nevertheless, this realistic understanding was irrelevant to her actual voting behaviour. Her final decision was not informed by rationality, which she did not lack, but a determination to revenge. She walked into the voting booth and casually stamped her ballot against any one candidate. What she desired was not a victory of any party or candidate but the very defeat of her in-law’s preferred candidate. In other words, although the ballot is the symbol of equal citizenship in the public domain, it was ‘privatised’ by the familial hierarchy. For the brother-in-law, the ballot was a token symbolising his domination. For Mai Lan, the ballot was an indispensable conspirator for resistance.

When immigrants’ finance is relatively secure and their defence is armed with vocabulary of democracy, there is less risk of all-out disobedience. This is the transformation which Nguyễn Thi Xuân Mai enlivened in her 10-year negotiation with her matriarchal mother-in-law. Their relationship was a persistent source of stress for Xuân Mai, but in motherhood and employment she found strength to defeat her thoughts of suicide. Xuân Mai’s mother-in-law gave her a clear voting instruction. Xuân Mai understood that independent and free will was the rationale behind casting a vote. Thus, she openly rebelled: ‘You shouldn’t force me! Everyone has their own preference!’ Xuân Mai’s script of rebellion was so effective that the matriarch ran short of ammunition to put down her disobedience. In this open confrontation, the value of citizenship, or at least the script which upholds the ideal of exercising citizenship, stood side by side with the weak and disadvantaged in the private home. It rendered Xuân Mai’s a victory in asserting her independence in the private sphere where her mother-in-law often prevailed.

All in all, these varying circumstances and resistance strategies showcase immigrant women’s acts of citizenship. Some acts reflected their understanding that voting rights were used in a free and independent will for preserving self-interest in the public domain. Other acts, neither being mundane nor passive, were reactions to the hierarchical familial relationship. Both kinds of acts interplay in their daily life. This interplay draws a picture far more realistic than the stereotype that immigrant women passively accept the voting instructions given by their husbands without reservation. Punctuated by the in-laws’ keenness in dictating their voting decision, this interplay also suggests that the private home has become a site for competitive electoral politics and contestation between domination and resistance.

In an unequal familial hierarchy, the in-laws consciously transformed voting from being a public right equally enjoyed by all citizens to that of a token signifying their self-claimed authority in the private home. Weakened by age, gender, ethnicity and class, immigrant women recognised the impact of voting rights on their familial relationship. In response, with the ballot as the ‘weapon of the weak’ (Scott 1985), their acts of citizenship were to abstain, sabotage or rebel in order to maintain autonomy. Their acts illuminated their personal agency articulated in silence as well as openness. Their agency made a critical difference to the power relation between the domination of the in-laws – male and female – and the resistance of immigrant women in the private home. Their manoeuvring is parallel to their grasp of the public utility of voting rights in a democracy.

Interviews with Zhu Yongli, Nguyễn Hong Phuc, Lưu Mai Lan, and Nguyễn Thi Xuân Mai were respectively conducted on 21st April, 1st April, 21st April, and 30th May in Taipei, Keelung, Hsichi, and Yilan. As there was no funding for interpretation, all interviews were conducted in Chinese. This is an acknowledged restriction on the quantity of interview results.

Central Election Commission (中央選舉委員會). (2013). Overview of the 13th Presidential Election (第13任總統(副總統)選舉 選舉概況), at (accessed on 24th August 2013).

Isin, Engin. (2009). Citizenship in Flux: The Figure of the Activist Citizen. Subjectivity (2009) 29, 367–388.

Ministry of the Interior (MoI) (2013). Statistical Yearbook of Interior (Numbers of the Acquisition of ROC Nationality). at (accessed on 24th August 2013).
National Immigration Agency (NIA) (入出國及移民署) (2011), Numbers of Foreign Spouses and Mainland Spouses (Including Spouses from Hong Kong and Macao)(外籍配偶人數與大陸(含港澳)配偶人數) (in Chinese), December, at (accessed on 24th August 2013).

Scott, James C. (1985). Weapons of the Weak: Everyday Forms of Peasant Resistance. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Isabelle Cheng is a Lecturer in the School of Languages and Area Studies at the University of Porstmouth

Posted in Taiwan